A Guide to Digital Marketing Agencies in Japan – Understanding a Changing Landscape

Posted By Jim Kersey

Japan’s marketing and advertising arena is evolving fast. Even here where the shift towards digital has been slower than in other nations, companies, and the marketers that serve them, must now coordinate highly fragmented audiences across several different channels.

Also, with the growing need to foster communities and build two-way conversations with consumers using new technologies, the reliable agency-client relationships of the past, largely relying on old media, have undergone a transformation.

We’ve seen a great number of agencies die out over the years, while new, more digitally capable ones have sprung up in their place. Meanwhile, skills have been learned, talent imported or trained, and internal teams restructured – all to handle the changing demands of our times.
In this blog we explore what the current landscape looks like for digital agencies in Japan, with some present and predicted trends to watch out for.

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Trends in the World of Japanese Digital Marketing

New marketing technologies now provide an unprecedented level of data on everything from reach and audience behaviour to targeting and ROI. Yet, being a digital marketer in Japan is tough if you don’t know how best to use this data, or are having trouble translating your findings to a client who longs for the days of traditional media.

A Focus on New Digital Technologies and Spaces

Companies and agencies have heavily invested in new media platforms to help them deliver innovative experiences to their customers. As well as building platform-based marketing strategies purely for channels like Facebook, Google, or Youtube, companies are looking to improve data collection and analysis software to organise and sort data from these numerous sources.

Digital agencies with existing processes, skills, and resources optimized for digital marketing now hold an advantageous position as more clients look for help in this area. Other more traditional advertising and marketing agencies will be looking to branch out into this realm, or partner with digital-first agencies who can offer complementary digital services to their own.

Increased Collaboration

The best digital agencies are becoming truly collaborative. Sticking to one approach like PR alone, for example, isn’t a reliable way to connect with audiences today. To be truly effective, agencies need to work with a diverse team of professionals with varied knowledge of the communications sector.

It’s not enough to provide just PPC campaigns, or Social Media. People want a more rounded customer experience from their brands, and this requires marketers and in-house teams to work closely with a vast range of functions, including content marketing, SEO, web development, ecommerce, user experience, graphic design, and influencer marketing.

Agencies are increasingly asked by clients to offer all these things together in one package. A tall order indeed! And while some are able to meet this demand, others must outsource certain components or partner with other agencies who can fill in where their capabilities are lacking.

HB Pro Tip: There are clear practical challenges when it comes to delivering on several different specialties within the marketing world. Be careful that you don’t commit to an agency that promises the moon and actually outsources your entire project to third-party agencies, or freelancers (potentially located overseas). Try to retain control of the majority of your projects within your chosen agency, and expect accountability and clear reporting on strategy and processes.

Less Push and More Pull

Engaging content developed by digital agency in Japan

Great marketing is so often ‘disguised’ as just great content. Whether it’s an interesting blog article, or a fitness tutorial on Youtube from your favourite influencer, the way to get people on board is to provide them with something they can genuinely benefit from in some way.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s something that is being picked up with greater intensity by brands and marketers in Japan today. Digital agencies that are able to interact with varied target demographics in innovative, engaging ways that provide genuine value will become increasingly sought after.

Changing Agency-Client Dynamics

Japanese has higher-than-normal loyalty levels for existing vendors, which means edging out an advertising agency that has had a longstanding relationship with a brand isn’t a simple task. But equally, retaining the status quo isn’t acceptable anymore.

Market leaders once relied upon to handle nationwide campaigns and brand marketing are being challenged to rethink their approach. And new dynamics in the marketplace between clients and agencies are evolving significantly.
As clients are learning more about what they need to bring their brand through to the digital age, many organizations are shifting more of their budget to building new capabilities in-house, from creative to data analysis. Meanwhile, others are hiring smaller agencies with more niche skill sets to handle distinct aspects of their campaigns, such as SEO or PPC.

Essentially, the needs of brands are more expansive and this has forced partnerships to be rethought and negotiated on many levels.

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Types of Digital Agencies in Japan (And the Services They Offer)

Behind the scenes of digital agency in Japan

As we’ve suggested already, the DNA of Japanese marketing agencies is going through a significant transformation with advertising, marketing, and consulting agencies of all kinds redefining who they are and what they offer. Yet, despite this, there are still some common traits you can look for when surveying the digital agencies that exist in Japan today.

Traditional Advertising/Creative Agencies

Advertising agencies have traditionally specialized in communications programs such as traditional advertising and direct marketing. However, many now offer a collection of digital resources and services to their clients. Internal teams include people with media planning and creative skills experienced in delivering communication messages to target audiences on a mass scale through TV, radio, or print media. Increasingly they now also include individuals able to handle a wide range of activities like Social to complement broader creative campaigns.

Social Media Agencies

Social media agencies can be quite varied in Japan, much like the rest of the world. Some have strengths in particular platforms like Facebook and Instagram, with a focus on paid activities. Others have more broad organic and PPC services across all major platforms, with additional content creation support thrown in.

HB Pro Tip: ‘Social media agency’ is just an umbrella term. We recommend spending some time deciding what you need from your digital agency before committing. There are some truly amazing creative social media agencies in Japan that will boost your brand awareness in your designated market, but they may not be as good at supporting direct sales and conversions, with clear data to record their processes. Decide what’s important to you and make a decision based on this.

See What Japan’s Social Media Landscape Looks Like

Influencer Agencies

Many influencers are professionally managed by agencies in Japan — even those with modest follower numbers when compared to Western standards. And while you can reach out to micro influencers yourself for more direct relationships or ambassadorships, if large-scale influencer marketing is a priority, it’s likely you’ll have to work with a firm that specializes in this.

SEO Agencies

An SEO agency is likely to have a team with more digitally technical skills than purely creative. Handling your website’s on-page optimization as well as implementing strategies to improve your Google ranking, they will identify weaknesses in your online presence and build a plan for strengthening it.

As this process heavily relies on content to achieve SEO criteria, most SEO agencies should have some decent copywriting skills on-hand. And despite the growing belief in video as the most powerful medium for marketing, 58 percent of marketers still think “original written content” is the most important type of content.

Also, SEO agencies typically offer some kind of web development package too, that will help you to actually build your site in the first place.

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Google Ads/PPC Agencies

Google Ads that are carefully developed and shown to people who are actively searching online for a solution to a problem have huge potential to convert users. With a low barrier to entry and ability to scale rapidly, running a Google Ads campaign can be an extremely effective way to spend your money in Japan. A PPC agency will project manage your campaigns, gather data, optimize your strategy, and report everything back to you with a clear view of performance.

HB Pro Tip: The creative element of PPC and SEO agencies is sometimes undervalued in favour of purely technical skills and project management capabilities. However, strong creative messages and visual creativity is a cornerstone of both these approaches. We recommend scrutinising your potential agencies’ creative talents just as much as their technical expertise.

Content marketing Agencies

Graphic designer working at digital agency in Japan

Agencies that lead with ‘content marketing’ as their primary offering usually aspire to a wider belief that marketing needs to entice people through genuinely enjoyable content.

Blogs are one of the simplest mediums for this, but video, infographics, social media, tutorial, guides and much more fall under the umbrella of content marketing. Even SEO and PPC can be closely woven into the content marketing matrix in that these activities should be grounded in good content if they’re to be successful at connecting with users.


Traditional PR has been declining for a number of years in Japan, partly due to dated tactics and the difficulty of tracking performance. Event planning, crisis communication, and press releases all fall under the umbrella of traditional PR with press releases and media pick-up being one of the most used strategies.
Today, good publicity is still worth striving for, but agencies are forced to utilize more avenues to get your brand’s message in front of your target audience. Digital PR strategists will leverage websites, blogs, and social media placements to deliver real-time results across an increasingly sophisticated and connected digital community.

HB Pro Tip: In all fairness, traditional PR can still be extremely successful in terms of increasing brand awareness. However, it can be nearly impossible to track the exact amount of viewers who see a media segment highlighting your brand, or how many readers caught a print article featuring your company. The closest estimate tends to be through the potential audience. Digital PR is far more measurable.

Web Development

Web development as a service is often outsourced by digital agencies. However, there are many agencies out there that will have a robust team of front and back end developers to complement a broader marketing department. If you’re looking for help to build your Japanese website, a common route is to go through a digital agency that offers ongoing SEO and content marketing services as well.

Manga Marketing and Animation Houses

Offering a manga twist to your marketing and promotional content is a powerful way to connect with Japanese users. So much so that there are a few well-known agencies that specialise in this service, and can help you adapt your campaigns or work up fun new concepts that showcase the works of great illustrators.

Consultancies and Japan Market Entry Advisors

Many multinational organizations or global brands will rely on large consultancies or business advisors to handle their local marketing activities, including their digital campaigns and promotion. This comes with the benefit of wider access to market research and business advice that can help brands succeed on multiple fronts.

While these entities have traditionally been relied on for strategy development and advice primarily, they are increasingly being called upon to offer executional services too. As such, it’s not uncommon for Japan entry consultancies to work closely with digital marketing partners or divisions within their ranks who are specialised in planning and delivering a suite of digital marketing support services.

Ecommerce Marketing Agencies

Japan has a unique landscape of ecommerce platforms, including Rakuten, Yahoo! Shopping, and Amazon Japan. And while the potential rewards are considerable, the competition can be fierce. Operating successfully on any platform in Japan requires more than just a good product, it also needs you to have a solid, fully localized ecommerce marketing strategy in place. Japanese Ecommerce marketing agencies can help out with everything from platform SEO, PPC Ads, Social Media and even video development aimed at driving more traffic to your product pages.

Future Trends and Predictions for Japanese Digital Agencies

New concept created by digital agency japan

The digital marketing landscape changes so much (and so frequently) that predicting with accuracy all of the future opportunities and limitations is difficult. However, based on what’s happening right now, we have a few predictions about what might happen over the next few years.

A Better Handling of Data

Is having access to vast quantities of customer data a good thing? Arguably no, if you don’t know what to do with it. For the uninitiated, simply having to collect and organise customer data from various platforms can be burdensome, and could distract you from your priorities, especially if data isn’t your forte.

Nevertheless, clients increasingly want to know about the data being collected from their customers and how it’s being used to support campaigns and strategies. Also, 64 percent of marketing leaders report that data-driven strategies are vital in today’s economy.

The most successful digital agencies will not only be comfortable handling data as part of standard in-house processes, but they’ll also be able to innovate new creative approaches based on everything they’re learning.

Redistribution of Budgets

Contrasting forces of different kinds of digital agency in Japan

The digital transformation continues to advance in Japan, with internet advertising expenditures now surpassing television advertising spend. As digital-first content marketing approaches become more widely used, we’re at a significant turning point for the Japanese advertising industry where more budget is allocated to initiatives that support the growth of digital marketing efforts.

Greater Demand for Digital Talent

In Japan, there’s a much smaller pool of digitally savvy marketers who can execute on highly complex deliverables. A number of agencies feel they don’t have the skills or resources to overcome the challenges of both increased demand on the client side for performance focused results, and the consumer need for engaging and creative content.

As a result, companies may be forced to start to build out their own skill sets in areas such as SEO, PPC and data analysis. This could involve training programs for employees or more robust recruitment processes.

Agencies will also broaden out their skillset in the areas that matter the most, and many will hire a greater number of international employees with existing experience in the digital marketing arena.

An Appreciation of Creativity

This is more of a hope than a clear prediction, but with creative ideas and genuine, valuable content becoming a defining factor in how brands interact with customers, we’d imagine that clients will start to really appreciate the value of creativity from their agencies, even when holding them accountable to some pretty high demands and expectations in the way of ROI.

Currently, many marketers feel they are struggling to stay innovative and creative in this environment, but with more visibility around what really makes digital marketing great, we’ll hopefully see a shift towards prioritizing these aspects as prerequisites for good marketing.

With creative ideas and genuine, valuable content becoming a defining factor in how brands interact with customers, we’d imagine that clients will start to really appreciate the value of creativity from their agencies.

3 Tips for Choosing the Right Digital Agency

Yellow chair representing the perfect digital agency in Japan

Going it alone, especially in Japan, is a risky business. Even with a solid partner to drive forward your marketing initiatives, the road ahead can still be quite bumpy if you’re operating in a space with high competition and a formidable local presence. However, as with any significant investment, if you do your due diligence and work on finding a team of people who you can trust, you have a good chance of achieving your greatest commercial goals.

While your criteria will vary depending on your specific business and goals, below are a few tips for choosing the right digital agency in Japan.

1. Define What Success Looks Like, Early

Defining success and your core KPIs can help you understand whether your digital marketing partner in Japan can actually achieve them for you. Are you looking for online sales, clicks to your website, app downloads, or brand awareness? And what are the important indicators that will signpost progress?

While you can expect your agency to be somewhat nimble on their feet when it comes to helping you out with new marketing objectives as and when they arise, it’s important to build your relationship around some core deliverables and expected results. If you can put this framework in place early on, you’ll soon be able to see whether the relationship is a fruitful one.

2. What Kind of Relationship Do You Want?

Unlike your home territory, the way agencies work in Japan and the kind of relationships that exist across borders can be vastly different.

For example, you might be more comfortable with a digital agency who have strong English speaking capabilities on the client facing side to support smooth project management, delivery, and reporting. And you might expect such an agency to handle a broad range of services for you, including SEO, PPC, content marketing and Social media.

Alternatively, you might want to set up a Japan marketing manager within your own internal structure and have them work with multiple smaller agencies, outsourcing projects as and when you need them done. There are a few variations available, but it’s ultimately about how you want to manage the relationship and the level of trust you’re willing to offer.

3. Recognise Passion and Creativity

Search for teams that are proactive and actively engaged with your goals. With so much change taking place as we speak, there’s no single route to success, and so often the driving force behind a strong campaign is passion and creativity.

This is especially the case when bringing an existing brand over from your home market. Simply translating your core messages and strategies isn’t enough. You need an experienced team trained in delivering digital marketing campaigns to Japanese audiences to find innovative ways to connect your brand with your new customers.

HB Pro Tip: Beware of “pitch and switch”. The person pitching for your business may well be different to the junior marketing team who will actually be charged with executing. If you’re okay with that, it’s fine. But if you’re paying good money for the very best Japanese digital creativity and execution, you might want to guarantee your agency has the capacity to assign the relevant resources to your account.

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Ready to Pick Your Digital Marketing Partner?

Working with colleagues from a new digital agency in Japan

As we’ve explained, a digital agency in Japan can take many different forms. As the marketing world continues to change and redefine itself, it’s an interesting time for both digital agencies and brands entering Japan.

After reading this blog, you might have a better idea about the kind of partner you want to work with. However a final piece of advice is: look for agencies who also vet you as a prospective client. This is a good sign they’re taking your objectives seriously and will be committed to helping you achieve them.

The best agencies will understand that success is hard to achieve in Japan, and working with the right clients is an important part of the whole process.

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